Holograms turn museums into time capsules

Immersive experience allows visitors to digest history in new way.

Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster stands near his 3D hologram at the Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster stands near his 3D hologram at the Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. (Photo: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images)

You're making your way through a lush jungle, taking in the sights of plants and giant bugs. Suddenly, you hear a roar and out from foliage, a Tyrannosaurus stomps into your field of view. It lunges for you, but as your arms go up, the hologram shuts off and you're back in a museum, surrounded by other patrons.

This isn't a scene from a 1980s sci-fi movie set far in the future where holograms are still a technological marvel. It's something that'll happen in 2019 when the "Everything You Know About Dinosaurs Is Prehistoric!" exhibit goes on tour around the United States. This "immersive holographic experience" was designed by Jack Horner, the dinosaur consultant on the "Jurassic Park" films, and Horner Science Group. It will include traveling and permanent exhibits that will take "guests through recently unearthed findings about colors, skin texture, sounds and movements" of dinosaurs.

Horner and his team, along with the technology firm behind the exhibit, Base Hologram, aren't the only ones realizing the value of holograms as education tools that can also entice visitors.

Getting close to history

One of the best things about museums are all the artifacts you can only see there, like ancient instruments or tapestries. One of the worst things about museums is that you often only get to experience those items from behind a shield of glass, with a tiny placard to the side.

Holograms can provide a richer, more detailed experience. It's possible to scan objects and put these scans on display alongside the actual artifact. One exhibit had a 14,000-year-old decorate horse jawbone. It's possible, however, to be even more interactive. Take ColliderCase, for example, which uses an animated hologram to provide visitors an in-depth look at objects, like a Soviet-era sextant.

ColliderCase exhibits artifacts on a clear screens, complete with animations and explanations of how the artifacts work. It's particularly useful with things like sextants, but could also be used to show visitors how more obscure items or even ancient tools worked in their historical settings. This use of holograms can also be beneficial for artifacts too fragile and delicate to handle. As Gizmodo points out, holograms would be a great way to experience the original Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian without damaging the flag further.

Holograms aren't limited to artifacts, however. They an also be used to depict bodies in motion at exhibits. At the Tampa Bay History Center, the museum's 4,300 square-foot exhibit "Treasure Seekers" has holographic pirates walking among a life-sized pirate sloop and giving instructions to visitors about when to fire (virtual) cannonballs at other ships.

They can serve an archival and educational purpose, too.

Holographic people, real stories

At the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHMEC) in Skokie, visitors can visit the Take a Stand Center. The permanent exhibit features a number of galleries, including interactive media kiosks that educate visitors on the values of social justice and how they can participate. Perhaps the most notable gallery of the center is the "Survivor Stories Experience."

Using technology developed by the USC Shoah Foundation called New Dimensions in Testimony, the IHMEC recorded the stories of 13 Holocaust survivors at a stage in Los Angeles, surrounded by hundreds of cameras. For five to six hours a day, the survivors were recorded answering questions, up to 2,000 once the interviews were complete.

These recordings are then played at the "Survivor Stories Experience" exhibit as holograms. Visitors to the exhibit can pose questions to the holograms, and the holograms respond as if the survivor is actually on stage thanks to voice activation and recognition software. The interview questions that the survivors answered were designed to anticipate audience questions, including inquiries about life before the war, the state of the survivors' respective families and more.

"It prepares us for the day when our survivors will not be here," IHMEC CEO Susan Abrams told the Chicago Tribune. "Right now, the 60,000 students and educators who come through plus tens of thousands of general visitors have the incredible privilege to hear directly from a survivor."

Interactions with these holograms can be spookily life-like, too. Writing about engaging the hologram for The Verge, Lauren Goode said, "The conversation felt almost absurdly natural, due in large part to the [Shoah] Foundation’s development of its own natural language processing system. At one point, I realized I felt rude interrupting a video."

A strictly academic project presented during a 2016 conference talk displayed holographic "agents capable of behaving in a believable manner and display them within a real 3D model of a megalithic temple called 'Hagar Qim.'" These holograms were programmed to behave in a "psychologically sound and autonomous manner, meaning that they would be their own beings, not controlled by a user and their actions relate to the context of the world they are situated in."

Much like the response to the survivor holograms, the project found that 96 percent of the visitors to this experimental exhibit found it believable. About 90 percent of people agreed that such holograms would be useful in a museum "since it would immerse visitors within this context whilst helping them learn in a fun and interactive way."

Holograms, it seems, are ready to break out of the realm of 1980s sci-fi and into modern times.

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